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Bringing democracy online

Online voting is not only a necessity but an inevitability, writes Areeq Chrowdhury We’re not even halfway through, and 2017 has already brought about another political earthquake in Western democracy. An earthquake in the sense that an election that was meant...


Online voting is not only a necessity but an inevitability, writes Areeq Chrowdhury

We’re not even halfway through, and 2017 has already brought about another political earthquake in Western democracy. An earthquake in the sense that an election that was meant to end up as a thumping majority for the incumbent Conservative party ended up in a hung parliament. Fake news swirling around social media in the immediate aftermath suggested that this was down to a 72 per cent youth voter turnout – the “youth-quake”. However, reality shows that this was more of a “youth-tremor” as turnout amongst young people is more credibly estimated to have been around 57 per cent.

Still, compared to the 43 per cent achieved in 2015, this represents huge progress. A combination of local get out the vote campaigns, targeted digital advertising, diverse celebrity endorsements, and policies directly geared towards young people are all to credit for this. But according to YouGov’s post-election polling, young people aged 18 to 24 still had the lowest turnout of any age group. By contrast, 84 per cent of those aged over 70 turned out to vote. Overall turnout itself was only two and a half percentage points higher than 2015, at 68.6 per cent. 14.7 million people did not vote. So, what needs to be done?

Since May 2014, I’ve been calling for the introduction of online voting in elections. Initially, the trigger was to bring about a platform that would help engage young people in voting. First time voters in this election were born in 1999 and are likely to have known nothing other than a world of Facebook, smartphones, and social media. It seems nonsensical to me to continue indefinitely into the future with a voting system designed in the Victorian age. But young people are just one group of many potential beneficiaries of such a reform. Voters in the armed forces, voters abroad and voters with disabilities would be provided with much greater access to democracy with online voting. In particular, voters with vision impairments would finally be able to access their human right to a secret ballot as set out in WebRoots Democracy’s recent report, Inclusive Voting.

Some people say that online voting won’t make a difference to turnout, and that young people, and people more generally, do not vote because there are no real choices and that all political parties are the same. Yet in the snap election, we had two radically different parties in line for government, and policies which included back-dated free university tuition fees. Despite this, overall turnout largely stagnated and young people were still the least likely to vote.

Of course, online voting on its own would not itself increase turnout, but the difference would be seen as a result of how the platform is promoted. Currently, we are online salespeople for a product that can only be purchased at a car-boot sale or ordered by post. We need ‘the final one-click’ as neatly described by Conservative MP, Chloe Smith. Online voter registration is the best example of this. Introduced in 2014, the online voter registration platform in itself isn’t what saw such huge numbers of people join the electoral register in a matter of weeks, it was how the online platform was promoted.

The voter registration link was shared countless times across social media by institutions, organisations and celebrities as diverse and high profile as Emma Watson (24.8 million followers), Stormzy (712,000 followers) and Gary Lineker (6.13 million followers).

The deadline day for voter registration saw 622,000 people apply to join the electoral register, leapfrogging the previous record on the deadline day for the EU referendum (485,000). On the deadline day, 99 per cent of voter registration applications were made online instead of by paper. In total, an estimated 2.5 million people applied to join the electoral register since the snap general election was called. More than a million of them were young people. Would we have seen such large numbers if the process remained analogue?

If we are to help bring about a real youth-quake, or even a middle-aged-quake, we should bring democracy online. One recent survey found that 42 per cent of non-voters would be more likely to vote if they could do so online. If you were to extrapolate that for the recent election, we would be looking at an increase in turnout of up to 6.2 million people, or an overall turnout of around 82 per cent. Highly unscientific, but the point remains.

Critics will argue that cyber-security concerns will render this impossible. It’s challenging for sure, but ‘impossible’ I believe is a stretch. As well as the fact that online voting has already been successfully implemented in countries such as Australia and Estonia, there are various measures which can be put in place to mitigate risks. But the simple truth, in my opinion, is that online voting is not just a necessity but an inevitability. The electorate and society is moving in one direction, and that’s towards digital and on-demand services. The choice for critics therefore is to decide whether they help advocates to ensure that online voting is implemented securely, or continue under the delusion that it will never come to pass.


Areeq Chowdhury

Areeq Chowdhury is the head of think tank at Future Advocacy, focusing on the social, economic, and political impact of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies.


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